Mountains, clear blue skies, bright sun, fresh powdery snow and empty slopes, every skier’s dream.
It is the second week of March and I’m in Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise a relatively unknown ski resort in the Rhône-Alpes region of France. I’m here with 13 other strangers I’ve never met for a week long ski-yoga retreat.
Skiing and yoga? That’s an interesting combination I hear you say. Aside from the practical benefits of getting limbered up before throwing yourself down a mountain and stretching out those weary muscles after a long day on the slopes, the activities share a lot more parallels than you might first think.
Both activities require you to be truly present in the moment.
“Atha yoga anushasanam” – the first yoga sutra of Patanjali. Be here now.
Typically, it is the left brain (the boring side) that is associated with logic and analytical skills and the right brain (the fun side) that is associated with love, creativity and imagination.
Image courtesy of http://www.cartoonaday.com
Anything that shifts us from our serial inner monologue to being truly present in the moment is helping us move out of our left ‘thinking’ brain and into our right ‘feeling’ brain. In skiing, it tends to be the acute cognisance of our own mortality that keeps us closely engaged in the moment to prevent us from say sliding off the edge of the mountain. When skiing you really can’t ‘be’ anywhere else other than on that mountain and you run into trouble when you overthink; that applies whether you are trying to lift up into Eka Pada Koundinyasana (one legged side crow) or navigating some unexpected moguls. I remember my very first ski teacher said he could tell what broad-type of profession someone was in by observing their skiing technique. He was not surprised when I told him I was a scientist “I can tell, you are way over-thinking it, just relax, breathe”.
Ujjayi pranayama, the yogic breath teaches us to breathe in deeply through the nose and exhale out through the back of the throat in a way that makes us sound a little like Darth Vader. As silly as it sounds it is a warming, detoxifying and incredibly calming breath.
Stand up, twist, bend knees and breeeeatheeeeeeee.
Skiis angled down the mountain to the right, fast approach edge of mountain and stand up twist, bend knees and breatheeeeee, skiis angled left…..
Just like in yoga, once I get into a rhythm I use my breath to guide my movement one turn at a time. Sometimes I feel totally out of control, like the skis are driving and I’m sitting in the backseat observing and even though he isn’t present right now I hear my husband’s voice in my head “you will start enjoying skiing when you are in control of your skis and it’s not your skis controlling you” wise words Mr R. Other times I collect myself and remember to breath deep, dig in and ground down through my legs just like I do in tadasana (mountain pose). I start to feel my feet in full connection to the skis and rather than feeling a resistance I ease into the movement. As cliché as it sounds there are a number of blissful moments on the mountain where I can barely tell where my feet end and the mountain begins. Now I’m back in the driving seat. Gliding effortlessly through the trees with the sun behind me and glistening snow beneath my feet, it is utterly joyful. This feels like yoga.
There is a lot of talk about tinkering and playing with your ‘edge’ in yoga. In the self help world you hear the expression “lean into the discomfort” a lot, and that alongside “push your edge” and “go to the places that scare you” are all the platitudes that are playing around in my head as I am quite literally sliding towards the edge of the mountain, getting as close to the limit as my body will let me before turning trying to push it a little further each time. The best way to deal with those steep turns? “Despite seeming counter-intuitive, lean forwards down the mountain”, my instructor tells me. Lean into the discomfort. Literally.
On a couple of occasions during the week I go past my edge and I’m suddenly completely overwhelmed. Oops too late, I’ve already gone over the other side and the tears are steam rolling down my cold face, fogging up my googles as they go. This is where the Mettā comes in. Loving-kindness, self-compassion. You know, not giving yourself too much of a hard time because you’re on holiday and skiing is meant to be fun too.
“Om Mani Padme Hum” – the ultimate compassion mantra.
As you may be able to tell skiing seriously get me working into my fear body. I find it utterly terrifying and I think that’s why I like it so much. Like many of us, often in life I shy away from things that are too hard, too challenging, too terrifying. When put in difficult situations our bodies and minds naturally stiffen and resist when in reality the easiest way forward is to relax into the moment and let the journey unfold the way it is meant to.
Skiing feels like a very visceral way to access that fear and push my edge and boundaries beyond what is comfortable in the hope that some of that confidence might translate off the slopes and into the real world. Just like in yoga we practice putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations, holding postures way longer than comfortable to rehearse what it is like to be at ease when everything else is screaming to the contrary; truly yoga off the mat.
The Ganesh mantra is the chant that keeps me working through my fear this week. It is a simple mantra with a good rhythm and highly appropriate – Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and the mere mention of Ganesh has got us Snow Yogis out a few sticky situations over the week; getting the van up out of the steep, icy entrance when it had completely frozen over, and helping me down a sheer mogul run I was not quite ready to conquer.
“om gum ganapataye namaha”
Whilst the week was at times both physically and mentally challenging there were also many moments of sheer joy, laughter and lightheartedness with my fellow Snow Yogis both off the slopes and off the mat. Sharing stories of life adventures over delicious 4 course vegetarian meals, sampling the local French organic wine, my morning spiked hot chocolate chantilly and afternoon vin chaud delights, a lesson in Marmots, a rouge cheeseburger or two.
If you have never been on holiday with a group of strangers I highly recommend you do it. You’ll meet and bond with people from all walks of life you might otherwise never have the chance to meet. What better way to put yourself out of your comfort zone and push those boundaries?
- Adventure Yogi run many different types of yoga retreats for the adventure minded folk in multiple locations around the world: yoga with skiing, hiking, diving, surfing you name it check them out at adventureyogi.com
- Sainte-Foy is the Alps “best kept secret”, its cheaper than the busier resorts (32 Euros p/day weekdays), lots of varied terrain including lots of off-piste for the more adventurous and empty runs on most days (Sunday is the busiest day). It is only a 20 min drive from Bourg-Sainte-Maurice and the train from London is meant to be a delight (book well in advance as tickets sell out very quickly!)
- We stayed at the Frontline apartments which were very luxurious ski-in, ski-out chalets with everything you could want for a week on the slopes including underfloor heating, a fireplace and one of the apartments even had its own sauna! http://www.auberge-montagne.com/frontline.html
- Always buy the mountain insurance (avec insurance) even if you already have insurance it gets you airlifted off the mountain if needs be. A fellow snow yogi busted her knee and they got her down the mountain and into the hospital in no time. Insure & Go are apparently very good.